ZURICH — While American cities are synchronizing green lights to improve traffic flow and offering apps to help drivers find parking, many European cities are doing the opposite: creating environments openly hostile to cars. The methods vary, but the mission is clear — to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation.
Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded bypopular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of“environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.
Likeminded cities welcome new shopping malls and apartment buildings but severely restrict the allowable number of parking spaces. On-street parking is vanishing. In recent years, even former car capitals like Munich have evolved into “walkers’ paradises,” said Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer at Stanford University who specializes in sustainable transportation.
“In the United States, there has been much more of a tendency to adapt cities to accommodate driving,” said Peder Jensen, head of the Energy and Transport Group at the European Environment Agency. “Here there has been more movement to make cities more livable for people, to get cities relatively free of cars.”
To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.
Around Löwenplatz, one of Zurich’s busiest squares, cars are now banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail’s pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.
As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”
While some American cities — notably San Francisco, which has “pedestrianized” parts of Market Street — have made similar efforts, they are still the exception in the United States, where it has been difficult to get people to imagine a life where cars are not entrenched, Dr. Schipper said.
Europe’s cities generally have stronger incentives to act. Built for the most part before the advent of cars, their narrow roads are poor at handling heavy traffic. Public transportation is generally better in Europe than in the United States, and gas often costs over $8 a gallon, contributing to driving costs that are two to three times greater per mile than in the United States, Dr. Schipper said.
What is more, European Union countries probably cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving. The United States never ratified that pact.
Globally, emissions from transportation continue a relentless rise, with half of them coming from personal cars. Yet an important impulse behind Europe’s traffic reforms will be familiar to mayors in Los Angeles and Vienna alike: to make cities more inviting, with cleaner air and less traffic.
Michael Kodransky, global research manager at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York, which works with cities to reduce transport emissions, said that Europe was previously “on the same trajectory as the United States, with more people wanting to own more cars.” But in the past decade, there had been “a conscious shift in thinking, and firm policy,” he said. And it is having an effect.
After two decades of car ownership, Hans Von Matt, 52, who works in the insurance industry, sold his vehicle and now gets around Zurich by tram or bicycle, using a car-sharing service for trips out of the city. Carless households have increased from 40 to 45 percent in the last decade, and car owners use their vehicles less, city statistics show.
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